July 22, 2018 + St. John 20:1-2, 10-18 + Immanuel Evangelical-Lutheran Church, Alexandria, Virginia
“If there’s a feminist figure from the Bible for the #MeToo era, it could very well be Mary Magdalene.” Thus begins a March 2018 article from The Independent, a London-based news organization. The article is on the rehabilitation of Mary Magdalene’s reputation from the tradition that she was a prostitute.
In St. Luke’s Gospel, there is a woman who anoints the feet of Jesus with expensive perfume, then tearfully washes His feet and dries them with her hair. A similar account appears in all four Gospels, and in John’s Gospel the woman is identified as Mary Magdalene. In Luke’s Gospel she is called “a woman in the city who was a sinner” (7:37), which is one way you could describe a prostitute.
Certainly it’s possible that the same thing happened twice, and Mary Magdalene and the other woman got conflated. Now it doesn’t much matter if Mary Magdalene wasn’t really a prostitute; we don’t need to prove she was as though some article of faith rests upon it.
But the reasons why pseudo-scholars try to change the story are important. Listen to what’s going on as that article from The Independent develops:
[Mary Magdalene] was long maligned in the West and portrayed as a reformed former prostitute. But scholars have adopted a different approach more recently, viewing her as a strong, independent woman who supported Jesus financially and spiritually.
The idea behind this is that Mary Magdalene is maligned—made out to be a wicked, evil woman—because she is characterized as a sinner. But that’s the whole point! It’s not that Mary is made out to be a bad person – God’s Word describes all of us that way! No one who has honestly read the New Testament thinks that it’s the prostitutes that come off bad. It’s the “strong, independent [women]” – but more often, the strong, independent men who are the villains of the piece. In the account of the prostitute who washes Jesus’ feet, it’s the Pharisee—the respectable man who everybody thought was a good guy—who is shown to be the great sinner. The people who seem to be morally upright often have the hardest time seeing the sins deep within them, sins like pride.
Here is the way the Bible speaks about sinful people: “There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God…. There is none who does good, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10-12).
Okay, so hold that thought in your head—that the Scriptures speak of a universal sinfulness that condemns us all—and now listen to one more quote from the article I mentioned:
“Historical tradition says she was a prostitute from Magdala,” said Jennifer Ristine, director of the Magdalena Institute at Magdala. “Reanalysing that reputation that she had we can see she was probably a woman of greater social status, higher social status, a woman of wealth….”
What’s going on here is not an approach driven by scholarship, a quest for the best data, but rather, the article states clearly, an attempt to rehabilitate her image. And here’s the problem with that: We cannot be rehabilitated by hiding sin or wishing it away. The true rehabilitation is in the radical, total, complete forgiveness Jesus gives to us. We don’t make Mary Magdalene into a better woman by rewriting her story to make her an upper-class woman with money and connections. We don’t get to be saints on our own terms. We are saints by the declaration of God who forgives us. Jesus says to the woman in the city who was a sinner, “Your sins are forgiven you.” That is the rehabilitating word. Whether you’re a prostitute or a pornography user, whether you have a heart of pride or venom on your lips, this is the rehabilitation you need: confess your sins, and hear the Word of Jesus for you: “Your sins are forgiven you.”
Listen to how Luther talks about this:
[Christ] pronounces over the woman a merciful remission of sins and makes her a saint; but he commits Simon, the Pharisee, to the devil…. The miserable harlot he frees from sin and clothes her with heavenly grace. He shows the proud Pharisee his sin, and burdens his conscience. [House Postil 3:371]
Whatever the real identities and lifestyles are of the various women in the New Testament, we don’t make them better people by expunging their sins from the record. If we want to be Christians, we need to see in ourselves that we are the sinners. With Cain, I am a murderer. With Saul I am jealous. With David I am an adulterer and liar. With Matthew I am a tax collector, i.e., a cheater and a traitor. With Peter I am boastful, but when the time for action comes I lie about who I am and deny Jesus. With Judas I’ll sell Jesus out for thirty pieces of silver. With Pilate I’ll consent to an unjust judgment to save my job. And with Mary Magdalene I’m a sinner.
Luther said, “God grant that we not be found among sinners who refuse to be sinners” [House Postil 3:372]. The death of Jesus was for sinners. The resurrection of Jesus is for sinners. Confess that you are too – and then hear the eyewitnesses testimony of Mary Magdalene. “Mary stood outside by the tomb weeping, and as she wept she stopped down and looked into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.”
Two angels at either end of a slab – what does that remind you of? In the Old Testament, the Ark of the Covenant was made of acacia wood, and overlaid with gold inside and out. On top was a golden slab called the mercy seat, or the place of atonement. On each end of the mercy seat was an angel, also fashioned from pure gold. This ark with the mercy seat was placed inside the Holy of Holies, and the high priest would go in once per year, on the day of atonement. With clouds of incense swirling, he entered with the blood of the atoning sacrifice, and sprinkled it on the east side of the mercy seat. The book of Leviticus says, “So [the high priest] shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions, for all their sins.” (16:16). Sins aren’t written out of the story, but it takes blood and death to atone for them.
So what does Mary Magdalene see when she stoops down and peers into the tomb? The sinner sees the slab where the corpse of Jesus had lain. Two angels on either side proclaim the death of Jesus is the mercy seat. In His grave atonement was made. The death of Jesus is the power to take away sins. But Jesus is not there. Because unlike the goat and the bull slaughtered on the day of atonement, unlike the lambs offered every morning and every evening in the Jerusalem Temple, this sacrifice lives.
Christ is risen, and today that resurrection is delivered to Anna Claire. Today she becomes a disciple of Jesus. Today she possesses His promises. And that’s true for all you baptized. Though you stumble and fall, though you sin and doubt, Jesus is always your Jesus, His Father is your Father, His resurrection is your resurrection. His death remains for your sins.
Jesus is the rehabilitation you need. His punishment suffices for pimps, prostitutes, and politicians. His atonement covers your anger and arrogance. His sacrifice is for your selfishness and how you’ve squandered the gifts He gave you. His death is your life. Jesus is your rehabilitation.
All this Mary Magdalene sees when she sees the risen Jesus. She is an eyewitness, together with Peter and John, and more than five hundred disciples. Christianity is not a theory or a philosophy, an ethic or a culture. Christianity is grounded in these historical events, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, crucified in Jerusalem under a Roman governor to whom history attests, and was seen by eyewitnesses after His resurrection.
We believe not fables but history. And we believe the effect of the history: Christ died for us. His death is our death. His cross is our rehabilitation. His resurrection shall be our resurrection. So with Mary Magdalene and all the eyewitnesses, let us confess our sins, repent and rejoice, for Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia!
Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia!